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Tuesday | June 17, 2003

So Gitmo isn't a Gulag?

by Steve Gilliard

Tales of Despair From Inmates Released from Guantanamo Prison

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 16 — Afghans and Pakistanis who were detained for many months by the American military at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba before being released without charges are describing the conditions as so desperate that some captives tried to kill themselves.

According to accounts in the last three months from some of the 32 Afghans and three Pakistanis in the weeks since their release, it was above all the uncertainty of their fate, combined with confinement in very small cells, sometimes only with Arabic speakers, that caused inmates to attempt suicide. One Pakistani interviewed this month said he tried to kill himself four times in 18 months.

An Afghan prisoner who spent 14 months at the camp, at the American naval base at Guantánamo, described in April what he called the uncertainty and fear. "Some were saying this is a prison for 150 years," said Suleiman Shah, 30, a former Taliban fighter from Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan.

None of those interviewed complained of physical mistreatment. But the men said that for the first few months, they were kept in small wire-mesh cells, about 6 1/2 feet by 8 feet , in blocks of 10 or 20. The cells were covered by a wooden roof, but open at the sides to the elements.

"We slept, ate, prayed and went to the toilet in that small space," Mr. Shah said. Each man had two blankets and a prayer mat and slept and ate on the ground, he said.

The prisoners were taken out only once a week for a one-minute shower. "After four and a half months we complained and people stopped eating, so they said we could shower for five minutes and exercise once a week," Mr. Shah said. After that, he said, prisoners got to exercise for 10 minutes a week, walking around the inside of a cage 30 feet long.

In interviews at their homes, weeks after being released, he and the freed Pakistani detainee talked of what they said was the overwhelming feeling of injustice among the approximately 680 men detained indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay.

"I was trying to kill myself," said Shah Muhammad, 20, a Pakistani who was captured in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, handed over to American soldiers and flown to Guantánamo in January 2002. "I tried four times, because I was disgusted with my life.

"It is against Islam to commit suicide," he continued, "but it was very difficult to live there. A lot of people did it. They treated me as guilty, but I was innocent."

In the 18 months since the detention camp opened, there have been 28 suicide attempts by 18 individuals, with most of those attempts made this year, Capt. Warren Neary, a spokesman at the detention camp, said today. None of the prisoners have killed themselves, but one man has suffered severe brain damage, according to his lawyer.

The prisoners come from more than 40 countries, and include more than 50 Pakistanis, about 150 Saudis and three teenagers under 16, a majority of them captured in Afghanistan, said Dr. Najeef bin Mohamad Ahmed al-Nauimi, a former justice minister in Qatar, who is representing nearly 100 of the detainees.

Dr. Nauimi represents many of the Saudis, and American lawyers represent about 14 prisoners from Kuwait. There are also 83 Yemenis, he said, and a sprinkling of others, including Canadians, Britons, Algerians and Australians, and one Swede.

Since January 2002, at least 32 Afghan prisoners and three Pakistanis have been released from Guantánamo Bay. Five Saudis were recently handed over to the Saudi authorities. Yasser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi, was moved from the camp to a military brig in Norfolk, Va., in April 2002. Captain Neary said 41 people had been released in all, but he could not give a more exact description.

So what exactly is torture?

3.3.2 What does international law say about the meaning of torture?
The basic definition of torture is that contained in the UN Convention Against Torture (1984). According to Article 1(1), the term means :

"any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."

From this definition, it is possible to extract three essential elements which constitute torture:

The infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering
By or with the consent or acquiescence of the state authorities
For a specific purpose, such as gaining information, punishment or intimidation
Torture is an emotive word, but one which should not be used lightly. As you can see from the above definition, torture is characterised and distinguished from other forms of ill-treatment by the severe degree of suffering involved. It is therefore important to reserve the term for the most objectively serious forms of ill-treatment.

Cruel treatment, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment are also legal terms which refer to ill-treatment causing varying degrees of suffering less severe than in the case of torture. Forms of ill-treatment other than torture do not have to be inflicted for a specific purpose, but there does have to be an intent to expose individuals to the conditions which amount to or result in the ill-treatment. The essential elements which constitute ill-treatment not amounting to torture would therefore be reduced to:

Intentional exposure to significant mental or physical pain or suffering

By or with the consent or acquiescence of the state authorities

In order for the international bodies to make a distinction between the different forms of ill-treatment and assess the degree of suffering involved, they must take the particular circumstances of the case and the characteristics of the particular victim into account each time. This makes it difficult to identify the exact boundaries between the different forms of ill-treatment, because those circumstances and characteristics will vary, but it does make the law more flexible because it allows it to adapt to the circumstances. The important point to remember is that all forms of ill-treatment are prohibited under international law. This means that even where treatment is not considered severe enough (in legal terms) to amount to torture, the state may well still be found to have violated the prohibition on ill-treatment.

.................... Degree of suffering

Torture is distinguished from other, lesser, forms of ill-treatment by the severe degree of suffering involved. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of torture to assess. The two other essential elements are to a large extent objectively verifiable - it is generally objectively possible to establish that the perpetrator had a link with the state, or that the torture was inflicted for a specific purpose. The nature and degree of suffering experienced by an individual are another matter. They may depend on many personal characteristics of the victim - for example, sex, age, religious or cultural beliefs, health. In other cases, certain forms of ill-treatment or certain aspects of detention which would not constitute torture on their own may do so in combination with each other.

Certain types of treatment appear objectively to fall into the category of torture - for example, electric shocks to the genitals, or the pulling out of fingernails. Torture is not, however, limited to such familiar examples - it encompasses many forms of suffering, both physical and psychological in nature. It is particularly important not to forget about psychological forms of ill-treatment - very often these can have the most long-lasting consequences for victims, who may recover from physical injuries yet continue to suffer from deep psychological scarring. Forms of ill-treatment which have been found to amount to torture, either alone or in combination with other forms of treatment, include:

Falaka/falanga: beatings on the soles of the feet

Palestinian hanging: suspension by the arms while these are tied behind the back

Severe forms of beatings

Electric shocks


Mock executions

Being buried alive

Mock amputations

There are, however, also many 'grey areas' which do not clearly amount to torture, or about which there is still disagreement, but which are of great concern to the international community. Examples include:

Corporal punishment imposed as a judicial penalty

Some forms of capital punishment and the death-row phenomenon

Solitary confinement

Certain aspects of poor prison conditions, particularly if combined

Disappearances, including their effect on the close relatives of the disappeared person

Treatment inflicted on a child which might not be considered torture if inflicted on an adult

One particularly significant factor which may affect an assessment of the severity of the degree of suffering experienced is that of culture. It is important to be aware that different cultures, and indeed individuals within a particular culture, have different perceptions of what amounts to torture. This can be relevant in two ways - on the one hand, it can mean that behaviour which is thought of as torture by a culture or individual victim, may not normally constitute torture in the eyes of the international bodies. On the other hand, it can mean that treatment which is consistently considered by the international community to amount to torture is not viewed as such by the person who has been subjected to it. For example, in one country, beatings, even severe beatings, may not be considered torture but rather normal practice, whereas tearing a woman's clothing (without more) may be. It may even happen that treatment which is considered unlawful at the international level is actually lawful at the national level. In such cases, you should not be dissuaded from reporting the allegation, because the international bodies will be guided by international law. Remember that even where treatment is not found to amount to torture, it may still amount to another form of prohibited ill-treatment.

Let's see, conditions at Gitmo drive prisoners, who have no idea when or if they will be released, to suicide. Prisoners isolated from each other, treated without their consent.

So why are Americans doing this? The intelligence we're getting after 18 months is negligible, so why are these people being held outside the Geneva Conventions or US law? What possible reason is there for this?

So how does running Gitmo help the US?

Is this a moral thing for this country to do, in violation of law and common sense?

Steve Gilliard

Posted June 17, 2003 05:19 AM | Comments (43)


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